The mature root system is a vital plant organ, which is critical to plant performance. Commercial maize (Zea mays L.) breeding has resulted in a steady increase in plant performance over time, along with noticeable changes in above ground vegetative traits, but the corresponding changes in the root system are not presently known. In this study, roughly 2500 core root systems from field trials of a set of 10 diverse elite inbreds formerly protected by Plant Variety Protection plus B73 and Mo17 and the 66 diallel intercrosses among them were evaluated for root traits using high throughput image-based phenotyping. Overall root architecture was modeled by root angle (RA) and stem diameter (SD), while root complexity, the amount of root branching, was quantified using fractal analysis to obtain values for fractal dimension (FD) and fractal abundance (FA). For each trait, per se line effects were highly significant and the most important contributor to trait performance. Mid-parent heterosis and specific combining ability was also highly significant for FD, FA, and RA, while none of the traits showed significant general combining ability. The interaction between the environment and the additive line effect was also significant for all traits. Within the inbred and hybrid generations, FD and FA were highly correlated (rp ≥ 0.74), SD was moderately correlated to FD and FA (0.69 ≥ rp ≥ 0.48), while the correlation between RA and other traits was low (0.13 ≥ rp ≥ −0.40). Inbreds with contrasting effects on complexity and architecture traits were observed, suggesting that root complexity and architecture traits are inherited independently. A more comprehensive understanding of the maize root system and the way it interacts with the environment will be useful for defining adaptation to nutrient acquisition and tolerance to stress from drought and high plant densities, critical factors in the yield gains of modern hybrids.
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